Meet the New Zealander who knows more about Kim Jong-un than almost anyone

Anna Fifield, Beijing bureau chief for the Washington Post, talks to Toby Manhire about her new book The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, about working in China, and about reporting from Christchurch after March 15

There are few stories on the world news pages as enthralling, and as opaque, as North Korea. Created as part of a carve-up of the Korean peninsula after World War II, the country is now on its third leader in the Kim dynasty, Kim Jong-un, who came to power eight year ago at the age of (probably) 28.

The story of the young autocrat is told in Anna Fifield’s new book The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un. Smart, incisive and chock-full of scoops, Fifield’s book was published last month to a chorus of praise from critics. It’s all deserved: thousands of hours of research and reporting have been whittled into a page-turning yarn that paints an engrossing portrait of Kim-the-third.

A graduate of the University of Canterbury’s journalism school, Fifield has reported from around the world for the Financial Times and the Washington Post – from London, Washington, Tehran, Beirut, Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, even the rogue state of Sydney. She’s visited North Korea as a journalist a dozen times. After this book, she won’t be able to go back, certainly not as long as Kim Jong-un remains in power.

The publication of The Great Successor coincided with a surge in headlines about Kim Jong-un and his relationship with his nuclear-powered pen-pal, Donald Trump. Fifield was all over the US news channels on its launch last month. After her return from a fortnight promoting the book in the US, she spoke to The Spinoff from Beijing, where she is bureau chief for the Washington Post.

The Spinoff: In the last few weeks it seems like you’ve had the most effective book publicists imaginable, in the form of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.

Anna Fifield: I could hardly have hoped for better timing. It was entirely coincidental that the publication date hit the first anniversary of the Singapore summit. Kim Jong-un created a lot of news for me by sending his beautiful love letter to Donald Trump, which Donald Trump reciprocated. And then the scenes of that extraordinary impromptu meeting between the two men at the DMZ reinforced the point that I make at the end of my book, which is that these are two very unconventional leaders. Kim Jong-un is so different from his father, Kim Jong-il. He’s so much more audacious and spontaneous, and Donald Trump is completely unlike any American president ever seen before.

It’s the combination of the two of them that makes for this very unusual opportunity right now. Yes, Trump is acting in very unorthodox ways, but I think maybe it takes some unconventional thinking to make a breakthrough when it comes to North Korea.

So you think there is a chance this unorthodoxy, or to put it less generously, wildness, on the part of these two leaders really could bear fruit?

Yes. I don’t for a second think that Kim Jong-un is going to give up his nuclear weapons. I think he needs them for his security. But I think there is huge scope between where we are now and complete verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of his nuclear programme. So there’s room to play in there. And the fact is that Kim Jong-un really, really wants economic development in North Korea, and he cannot have that while these sanctions are still in place. The sanctions have had a really, really huge impact on the North Korean economy, so he is not going to be able to make good on his promise to the North Korean people that they will never have to tighten their belts again while the sanctions are there. He has this very strong motivation to play ball here with Donald Trump, to try to make some progress.

For all of the pooh-poohing of the way Donald Trump has said things – like that the beaches in North Korea are a perfect place for condos, and the way he does see North Korea as a real estate development opportunity, I think there is a bit of an overlap there with Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong-un wants high-rises. He wants to be able to say that life is getting better under him. And that’s not because he cares about the people of North Korea, but because he wants to stay in power. He’s still only 35 years old now, so he potentially has four or five more decades ahead of him. His grandfather lived till 82. So there are a lot of variables, obviously, but if he’s seeing the big picture and playing the long game, he knows that he needs to deal with North Korea’s really decrepit economy.

The economy figures as a strong theme in the book: the importance of a liberalised economy to normal North Koreans. How important is that to Kim Jong-un?

Hugely. That liberalisation did start during the famine in the 90s, out of necessity, when the ration system completely broke down and the regime couldn’t feed the people any more. It was kind of tolerated by the regime. But now under Kim Jong-un, he’s actively encouraging it. There are all of these huge market buildings, built by the state. The state makes money out of renting all the stalls. It makes a huge amount of money from taxes. Plus all of these officials are on the take, getting corrupt and rich, in the operation of these marketplaces and the supply chains around the country. So many people are feeling like their lives are improving, and Kim Jong-un hasn’t had to do anything at all, really, to foster that feeling. All he had to do was stop thwarting entrepreneurialism. He just had to allow it to flourish a little.

The reason I concentrate so much on the economy in the book is because there’s this perception that North Korea is stuck in a time warp and has not changed one iota since its foundation in the 1940s. But in fact this marketisation process has been a huge change in the way that the system operates. It’s really loosened the state levers of control over the people, and allowed more information to come in. As trade comes over the border from China, so too does gossip, and movies on USB sticks, anecdotes about the outside world. It has been a really massive change.

Anna Fifield with the American and international editions of her book at the launch in Georgetown, Washington DC. Photo: Toby Manhire

You are one of the few journalists who has been able to repeatedly visit North Korea, and to observe, even if in a limited way, life there. How many times did you travel there, and what were you able to see, to see change, over the course of those visits?

I went 12 times over a period of 11 years. My first visit was in 2005. Most of the visits were to Pyongyang, which is the showcase capital, the part they want outsiders to see. But from there I did travel a bit, to other fairly circumscribed areas. I was never able to go to the northern areas, where the people who are considered hostile to the regime live. But by visiting Pyongyang and being able to compare how it was changing over time I did manage to make some observations about what was happening in North Korea. I distinctly remember one year in the middle of winter, I went to Pyongyang and I went to the best hospital in the country, the Red Cross hospital in the capital, and there was no electricity. It was freezing cold. There were patients sitting in pyjamas in this room. I was wearing a huge North Face jacket and I was cold in there. It’s so illuminating, even going to Pyongyang, thinking: wow, if this is what their best hospital is like, imagine what the ordinary hospitals out in the countryside are like.

I’ve been able to see things like that, to build stories off little insights.

And you have along with that a depth of information drawn from defectors, or as you call them escapees. 

It’s ironic that my best reporting about life inside North Korea comes from life outside North Korea, from going to find people who have escaped. I’ve managed to find a lot of people who have escaped very recently. People up on the Chinese border with North Korea, for example. Or I’ve intercepted people in Thailand and Laos as they’re on their escape route out from North Korea. Sometimes I’ve talked to people who were living in North Korea just a week before. Those people are able to give very, very up-to-date testimony about what life in the real North Korea is like. These people haven’t told their stories at all, or very few times at this point, so they’re not, hopefully, bored by talking about their lives in North Korea. Because once they get to South Korea, they can be hounded by journalists, and once they tell their story again and again some of the details can get lost.

By talking to them on the way out I’ve been able to collect really valuable insights into the way that people survive in the system, how they protect their children in the system, how they have managed to get ahead or to thrive despite the system. In the course of researching this book I did ask people a lot about the first time they heard about Kim Jong-un and their first impressions about him, to describe what it was like to live in Kim Jong-un’s North Korea.

You went to Switzerland, where Kim Jong-un lived as a teenager. And if your book were to be smuggled into North Korea on a USB stick that would be one of many facts that would come as a surprise to most people.

That’s right. They don’t know that he went to school in Switzerland. They don’t know his mother was born in Japan. They don’t know he has an older brother. Even his younger sister, who’s there at his side all the time, they don’t technically know that she’s his younger sister, though they can probably figure it out.

But they would be very surprised about Switzerland. He and his siblings were sent there because it’s famously discreet, so they could have some sort of normal life, instead of being isolated inside the compounds in North Korea, have no friends and not go to school. So he went to school there from the age of 12 to 16. They were trying to give him a normal life. He didn’t really have that normal a life, because he had difficulty communicating. He was used to being treated like a little princeling and expected everything to go his own way. He didn’t seem too interested in academics. He just wanted to play basketball the whole time.

But during these very formative adolescent years, he did have exposure to the outside world, to different ways of life. One of the things I did was I went to the educational authorities and they showed me the curriculum he would have studied. I was able to see all the things they would have learned. They really stressed to me that all students in Switzerland are taught to be open minded and tolerant and to respect other religions and cultures and different ways of life. So I wonder how much of that he absorbed at the time. Not very much by the look of it.

One of the revelations of your book, which Trump was responding to when you were in the US recently, is that Kim Jong-nam was a CIA agent. How does the brother of Kim Jong-un end up a spy for the enemy?

I think he was kind of down and out after Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011.

But also the way that he has used fear and the repressive system of surveillance and punishment that has been in place for a long time. He has not let up on that one iota since he took power, contrary to these expectations that he was some Swiss-educated reformer. He hasn’t.

The concentration camps remain. The incredibly severe systems of punishment for anything deemed to be a political crime, like questioning his leadership. Those remains in place. He’s managed to use both loyalty and terror to keep the system intact. The terror applies to the ordinary people but it also applies to the elites. So he has dispatched with people who could potentially challenge him or rival him for power. That includes his uncle, his half-brother, the head of the army, the propaganda chief. All of them he’s gotten rid of and installed people who are loyal to him, who owe their positions to him alone.

Is there a danger at times of falling into a trap, which I think I personally have at times, of regarding North Korea and its leadership as a comedy story?

There is a danger. A lot of people, including myself, have fallen into this trap. They don’t make it easy for us not to sometimes see them as comedic. There’s one picture of Kim Jong-un that gets used on almost every single story. And that’s him next to this giant vat of lubricant with a giant smile on his face. It just kind of seems to capture so much of the ridiculous about this regime. Because it is ridiculous, the propaganda myths they make up about the leaders in order to keep them in power. Saying that a double rainbow appeared in the sky when Kim Jong-il was born. That Kim Jong-un could shoot a gun and drive a car before he was even school age. It is ridiculous. And their appearance, obviously; they look like buffoons. So they have tended to be treated as a joke. But they’re not a joke. Especially Kim Jong-un is not a joke because he’s really proved his seriousness with the nuclear programme. He’s defied all of the expectations and predictions to build a credible nuclear weapons programme with astonishing speed, to show that he’s able to fire these missiles. So as we treat him as a joke we’re underestimating the threat, the real threat that he does pose. To his neighbours, to the outside world, and the United States.

But we also underestimate or ignore the threat that he is posing to his own people on a daily basis. The North Korean people live in this system and live in fear of this system and live in hunger because of this system, because of the way that he operates. So we should be taking him seriously out of respect and concern for the North Korean people. If we just treat him as a cartoon character then we miss all that serious side.

You’ve been talking a lot about North Korea, but you have a day job as Beijing bureau chief for the Washington Post. How’s that? The Post is now blocked in China?

Yes. Last month six more websites were added to the blacklist and we were one of them.

What does that mean for working there, leading a group of journalists in a country where you are essentially deemed hostile by the state?

It doesn’t have a massive impact on us from day to day, because we are writing what we need to write anyway, and many people in China who want to read foreign media use VPNs, so they can still access our site anyway.

But the Chinese government views foreign journalists with an enormous amount of suspicion. It’s just really incremental. Being on a blacklist just changes it incrementally. It was a very difficult environment to operate in beforehand. And it still is now.

A much bigger issue for us is not government actions against the Washington Post or the New York Times or whoever, but what the government can threaten to do to ordinary people, or to experts. It’s become a lot more difficult to just report in China, because people are afraid to talk. The man on the street kind of stories are difficult to do because people don’t want to attract the attention of the authorities. University professors don’t want to talk in case they get into trouble or speak out of turn. So it’s a very controlled environment for Chinese people to operate in. Much more than it is for us.

Which are the stories that will dominate in the year to come in China?

The trade war is obviously a huge story for us as an American paper, and that is not showing any signs of going anywhere soon.

Just in general the broader clash between the United States and China, and this jockeying for dominance that we see playing out through the trade war, but also technology, the Huawei dispute over 5G technology, the very near-misses in the South China Sea between the two countries’ militaries. There’s the tussle over Taiwan, as well; it looks increasingly as if Xi Jinping may want to try to coerce Taiwan to return to mainland control. So generally speaking I think the big, broad-brush picture is the rising of Xi Jinping and the increasing control of Xi Jinping and the way that he is creating this hegemonic power to rival the United States, trying to divide and conquer countries to be either with China or with the United States. We see that playing out now with Huawei and 5G and how the Chinese are looking at New Zealand and Australia and the UK as proxies for how this is going to be resolved with the US; they’re trying to peel away these countries from the US.

You returned recently to New Zealand in unexpected and not at all happy circumstances. You were, on March 15, on holiday?

Yes, in Thailand, on holiday, after submitting my final manuscript of my book. I take my laptop everywhere I go, but having worked so hard on this book for two years, I said to my son: I’m going to leave my laptop behind, and he did a happy dance. So off we went, and of course, then, Murphy’s law: I really needed that laptop. I was on the beach in Thailand glued to my phone watching as these breaking news alerts came in and watching events unfold in Christchurch, and just looking in complete horror at what was happening, and feeling this very strong need to be there, and to write about it. It affected me a lot. I thought I had a duty to the readers, as well, to be able to write about this, as one of very few New Zealand writers working for an American paper. So I very much wanted to be there.

What were your impressions of your time in Christchurch? How did you describe the aftermath to people unfamiliar with it?

I was really quite overwhelmed by the way New Zealand responded. It was a very loving response, if that’s the right word. I’m used to being in America and looking at the response to all the shootings, and the anger. But to see that way that, obviously, Jacinda Ardern responded. But also others: Trevor Mallard standing up in parliament and greeting people in Arabic. To see women wearing headscarves. And Hagley Park opposite the mosque, where there was this massive haka done by high school students. That was the thing that got me. I had to go behind a tree and have a little cry after that. To see this beautiful rainbow of New Zealand teenagers, you know, of every different colour, all doing a haka in unison, just showed me something. It was very moving to see this cohesiveness of spirit, and the way that we can share our culture, with Māori culture at its centre, felt very different to the often divisive responses to these kind of incidents in the United State in particular. So I felt very proud.

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But then, also, as I wrote for the paper, there was a soul-searching that went on in New Zealand after the incident. All these various stories coming out about people talking about casual racism and how prevalent that was in New Zealand. It forced a kind of reckoning and, I think, made many people act to make New Zealand an even more inclusive place.

Full disclosure, because democracy dies in darkness: I read a draft manuscript of the book and made a few minor suggestions.

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